Review: City

City

City, Clifford D. Simak (Introduction by David W. Wixon). New York: Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published in 1952).

Summary: A collection of eight connected stories stitched together by “notes” from dog commentators on how human beings died out as a species on earth.

Clifford Simak was one of the science fiction writers from what many call the “Golden Era” of science fiction from the 1940’s to the 1960’s–the age of Bradbury, Heinlein, and Asimov, among others. This was the science fiction of my youth, but I never encountered Simak’s work. In this new e-book edition published by Open Road Media, David Wixon, Simak’s literary executor introduces the book to a new generation (and an old one that may have missed it!). The book, published in 1952 consists of eight related short stories linked by introductory notes by “doggish” commentators. An “Epilog” was added later.

Dogs are one of three connecting threads through the whole book. The others are the Webster family, civic leaders, inventors (including the invention of a space drive), and scientists (including one who modified dogs so they could speak and read, creating an evolutionary jump for the dogs which is also traced through the book). The other linking thread is Jenkins, the robotic butler of the Websters, who becomes the caretaker of their house, and the evolving race of dogs who forge a peace with all the other animals ending the killing of one beast of another.

The story is of a human race whose existence is dramatically changed by its technology. Hydroponics and personal air travel result in the forsaking of cities for self sufficient rural enclaves supplying all one’s needs. One Webster invents an innovation in space travel making interplanetary travel easy, and humans begin to leave for other worlds. Humans try to settle on Jupiter, and modify their physical makeup to adapt to the harsh gravity and atmosphere. None who are sent out to test the alterations return. Finally the director and his old dog Towser do, and understand why–in their altered state Jupiter is incredibly beautiful and their minds are capable of things their human brains could never do. The director comes back long enough to tell the truth, leading to wholesale abandonment by most people for this better existence.

A few remain. Among them are Joe, who lives near the Webster homestead, and others like him, human mutants pursuing their own mysterious existence. Before Joe vanishes he experiments with creating a climate where ants do not need to hibernate but live year round and develop, then he smashes their enclosure, setting off another evolutionary trajectory.

Meanwhile, the dogs, under Jenkins watchful tutelage, more or less replace humanity, enclosed and living in suspended animation in Geneva until their existence is threatened by the ants who they refuse to kill. Jenkins helps the dogs relocate to other worlds (and the remaining humans to an earth in an altered reality until they die out) and the ants take over only for their rule in turn to collapse.

Only Jenkins is left with some field mice, when a space ship of robots stops by, and Jenkins, his work done, bids Earth good-bye.

Simak’s work explores some classic themes of science fiction. One is the impact of our technology. What happens to human beings when our technology makes life so easy that there is no apparent reason to fight for our existence. A technologically altered existence or suspended animation become the desired be-all and end-all of life. The second is the curious imaginary of a dog-ruled world, and what that would be like. A third question is the unintended consequences of altering natural courses, typified in Joe’s experiments with the ants. And the final piece is the development of the butler-robot Jenkins, in some ways shaped by his programming, and yet going “off program” in becoming a kind of god to the dogs and guiding their development.

Simak in many ways anticipates many of the more recent technological dystopias recent science fiction and young adult literature has envisioned. Do these authors render an important service in helping us grapple with the dark side of our technological innovations? Writing at a time when nuclear holocaust was the great fear, he suggests that it might actually be apparently “good” things that could kill us off over time, robbing us of qualities essential to our humanness–the sociality of the city, the challenge of eking out our existence, or finding larger purposes to life than our own ease and satiation. These are matters just as important today as they were sixty-five years ago when this work was first published.

City received the International Fantasy Award in 1953. “Epilog,” written in 1973, was included in a 1980 edition of the book.

Visit Your Favorite Indie Bookstore This Saturday!

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The delightful children’s section at Gramercy Books, an independent bookseller in Bexley, Ohio.

This Saturday, April 29, would be a good day to visit your favorite independent bookstore. It is Independent Bookstore Day in the U.S. and at least 458 stores are participating according to Publishers Weekly.

Just to go on record, in case you haven’t noticed, I am a HUGE fan of indie bookstores–whether they are retail or re-sale. It’s not just that I like bookstores, but there are several things I especially like about independent booksellers. One is that they contribute to the fabric and cultural richness of our communities. Two is that they contribute to the relational richness of our communities. Independent booksellers livelihood depends on knowing their customers. I’ve been in some stores that have an atmosphere a bit like Cheers–everybody knows your name and they are always glad you are here. And finally, these booksellers help us connect both with the books we are looking for and the books that are looking for us.

Stores have come up with some novel attractions, according to the PW article. Brazos Bookstore in Houston is giving out Cormac McCarthy self-published coloring books. They come with two crayons–red and black. Parnassus Books, Ann Patchett’s store in Nashville promises, “a brand new, never before seen, original story created before your very eyes by Nashville’s finest literary talents!” In some cities, including Minneapolis and Chicago, indies are teaming up to offer discount programs tiered by how many stores you visit. One of the weirder giveaways at some stores are literary themed condoms (sigh…).

The real point of the day is to encourage people to visit and leave with books they and those they care for will love. For many stores, this day is like Christmas in April. What I hope it is for many of us is the first (or second or third) step in cultivating a habit. These stores won’t thrive if those of us who are book lovers simply say, “someone else will buy from them.”

Some of us may struggle with the bargain-hunter mentality that tries to find the book at its lowest price. In addition to the fact that this may tempt us to buy more books than we will read (guilty as charged), the care of selecting a book we will buy to read and keep may be another benefit of buying our books at stores that don’t buy in bulk.

Finally, most of these stores take orders over the phone or online. If you can’t go visit them this Saturday, why not support them this way? You might consider doing so early because it sounds like they could be busy on Saturday. For the love of books and for the health of our communities, let’s hope so!

Review: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain

The Problem of PainC. S. Lewis. New York: Harper Collins, 2015 (originally published 1940).

Summary: Lewis’s classic work exploring the existence of suffering and pain and how this is possible in a world made and sustained by a good and omnipotent God.

There is some sense a reviewer has when reviewing books like this to feel the mere “poser” and to be simply tempted to say, “read Lewis!” But that would be a very short review! So what I might do is simply suggest a few reasons why we might read Lewis on this subject.

One is that while the experience of suffering, even as Lewis acknowledges, requires of us fortitude when we ourselves face it and supportive sympathy when we walk along side friends in the midst of this, there are other times when we must take the larger view and ask “why pain and suffering?” And here, Lewis begins to help us because he observes that this is alike a question for the theist and the materialist. Particularly as we witness both the ravages of disease and the inhumanity of people against each other, it seems that this is a monstrous assault on our sense of the good. The fact that the central figure of Christianity suffered at the hand of evil himself is not in itself an answer to this question but only poses another–why this death?

Some of what Lewis does that is quite helpful is define terms. Omnipotence does not mean that God is able to do what is impossible because of who he is or what he has decreed, to do. For God to be good does not require that he make us happy. We must at least allow that suffering may not be contrary to a God who loves us and seeks our ultimate good.

He also helps us take a hard, and uncomfortable look at human wickedness, in itself, the source of much suffering and pain. We are fallen creatures, not simply by the fault of another but by our own active perversity.  We often minimize the “crooked timber” of our own lives even as we displace the focus onto God.  Pain, at least has the function of shattering our illusions that all is well, and we are sufficient in ourselves. It also calls us into the belief that holds onto God when there is no benefit in doing so.

He takes on the idea of hell, and perhaps most helpfully says that his aim is not to make the doctrine tolerable, for it is not, but to show that it may be moral, despite the objections raised. He observes that most of us do want to see retributive punishment and that we would find great offense in God forgiving one who remains unrepentant in great wickedness. He notes that eternal may be something different than an endlessly prolonged time. He also cautions against literal interpretations of vivid imagery.

His final chapters consider the question of animal pain and heaven. On animal pain, he cautions that there is much that we do not know about this, nor for that matter the ultimate destiny of animals. On heaven, Lewis observes that whereas hell is privation, heaven is the fulfillment of those deepest longings that we reach for and never quite grasp, that filling of a place in us that nothing has ever filled that being in the presence of God at last fills utterly and beyond measure.

The group with which I discussed this book had one quibble with Lewis. He states that when we reach the maximum of pain, the pain of another does not add to the sum total of the pain. While this may be true at a physical level, we did wonder about the emotional pain we experience when we witness the sufferings to others, particularly those inflicted by human cruelty. It also raises a question about the suffering of Christ. Was the pain he experienced as sin-bearer of humanity (if we believe this) any greater than bearing the sins of just one person? There was something in the way Lewis framed this that was unsatisfying, even if logically true.

This summer, the group I mentioned will probably be reading A Grief Observed, where all of Lewis’s ideas are tested in the crucible of the loss of his wife Joy. It will be interesting to see if this changed his thinking in any way, or to what extent his ideas helped him. Stay tuned!

Review: The Next Worship

The Next Worship

The Next WorshipSandra Maria Van Opstal (foreword by Mark Labberton). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Using the language of an international table, this book gives both theological basis and practical help in leading Christian communities into multi-cultural and multi-lingual worship led by empowered multi-ethnic worship teams.

It does not seem so long ago when we were hearing of “worship wars” that consisted of conflicts between those who favored traditional (i.e. hymns) worship with choirs, piano and organ and those who favored contemporary music with guitars, keyboards, and percussion. While some churches are still wrestling with these different styles, the culture has moved on as the world has come to our neighborhoods. South Asians, Chinese and Koreans, African Americans, Latinos, and people from Middle Eastern countries all live in my neighborhood, have restaurants in our community, and at least sometimes turn up in our church.

Sandra Van Opstal uses the analogy of food to help us understand that our forms of worship are just as “ethnic” as those of other groups. We may consider PB & J to just be “food” but for many it is “American” food. For those who are from Mexico, what we consider Mexican food is just “food.” Similarly “normal” worship looks very different in very different cultural contexts. If our hope is that our churches begin to look like our communities, it means that we begin to worship in ways that are more “normal” for others, that say, “this is your table, too.”

She tells the stories of churches who have made these transitions. For those from Columbus, she features my good friend Katelin Hansen, and the multi-cultural worship she leads at The Church for All Peoples on the south side of Columbus. Many know Katelin for her blog, By Their Strange Fruitwhich focuses on racial reconciliation and issues of justice. Sandra features the work Katelin and many other worship leaders are doing in bringing together leaders from different cultural backgrounds and intentionally leading their churches into solidarity in worship with the different cultures in their neighborhood, and around the world.

Transitioning to this style of worship isn’t easy. Van Opstal charts the process from the first steps of reconciliation to hospitality (“we welcome you”), to solidarity (“we stand with you”), to mutuality (“we need you”). She traces the different options in worship that may be pursued. She discusses different types of worship teams, from monocultural teams with a strong leader who does all the planning  to multi-cultural teams with shared planning and leadership. She outlines four models of multi-ethnic worship from Acknowledgement (a dominant style with hints of others) to Blended (the equal representation of two or more styles) to Fusion (mixing styles or creating original music) and Collaborative Rotation (where leaders and teams are rotated and host worship in their own cultural style).

Van Opstal, who herself has led worship in a variety of settings from Urbana Missions Conferences and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students World Assembly (where I’ve seen her in action) to mainline churches talks about the different elements that go into a worship service and how she works with teams in planning. More than this, she talks about the challenging work of culture change and discerning how to work sensitively with different groups. She writes helpfully about avoiding “whiplash” where so many styles and languages are introduced at once that people are bewildered.

What I appreciated throughout was the model Van Opstal gives of honesty, vulnerability, and self-understanding. She writes at one point in chapter two:

Let’s face it, my Mandarin stinks! I’d rather sing in Spanish. I’d prefer to pray in English. I really like to move during worship, which would likely be a distraction in many of the churches or college chapels I visit. Crosscultural worship is just what it sounds like: we are crossing over (a bridge) to another way of doing things, which creatures of habit rarely like to do. As Spencer Perkins, the late reconciliation leader and coauthor of More Than Equals, used to say, “Bridge building hurts!” Not only are we crossing a bridge, we are also acting as a bridge for other people to cross, which means we are always getting stepped on. It takes commitment and intentionality; it’s a decision to act. . . .”

I would commend this book for any Christian community from student fellowships to established congregations (particularly in neighborhoods of changing demographics). It offers very practical help for those who lead worship (and be prepared for challenges to the Cult of the Worship Leader!) but should also be read by pastoral teams and church leadership preparing to wade in these waters. For such groups, each chapter includes discussion questions. There are also nine appendices at the end covering everything from worship movements and artists to various order of service examples to practical help in teaching a language song.

This book is real. It is inspiring. And it is tremendously practical, reflecting the author’s wide ranging experience in leading and coaching others to lead multi-ethnic worship. Some of the experiences I’ve had when I’ve observed her leadership have been “foretastes of heaven” as one begins to see what it will be like to worship with the nations of the earth. I can’t help but think that such foretastes are one of most compelling testimonies of the greatness and grace of our global God. My hope is that through this book, the nations will rejoice!

Review: The Decalogue

The Decalogue

The DecalogueDavid L. Baker. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: After an exploration of the shape, form, origin, and purpose of these ten “words”, the author takes each in turn, exploring the command in its cultural context, it’s biblical and theological meaning, and contemporary relevance.

The Ten Commandments. The Decalogue. The Ten Words. In recent times, they have been a point of controversy, with public displays of the commandments being contested–some arguing that they are foundational to western law, others that their public display is an unconstitutional government promotion of religion. At the same time, increasingly few people can accurately recite them, even those brought up in Christian settings. And for some, they represent “the law” –human effort to save oneself that has been superceded by the grace which alone saves us through faith in Christ.

David L. Baker cuts through both controversy and ignorance in this new work on the Decalogue. He begins with four chapters on introductory matters around the Ten Commandments:

  • Their shape: different ways of numbering them, the two “tables” of the law, and the commandments as part of the covenant of God with his people.
  • Their form: the two canonical versions, other versions, their arrangement on two tables, and cultural parallels.
  • Their origin: Baker explores the scholarly discussion and skepticism about Mosaic authorship, that he counters with the more startling assertion, that perhaps here more than most places in scripture, we are confronted with words spoken by God directly, not only to Moses, but to the Israelites, gathered at Sinai.
  • Their purpose: while some have proposed these as Hebrew catechism, the core of criminal law, or essential ethical teaching, Baker contends that these are Israel’s constitution, given not to attain salvation but rather as the framework of how those chosen to be the people of God might live under his gracious rule.

After dealing with these matters concerning the Decalogue as a whole, Baker turns to the individual commands. First of all he considers the ancient Near Eastern cultural context and parallels to the biblical commands. Strikingly, none exists for the sabbath command which is unique, while for the others, parallel instances may be found. Then, for each command, he discusses the biblical theological meaning of the command in its original context. Finally, he concludes with reflections on the contemporary relevance of these commands, and here, he draws on expansions found in the Hebrew scriptures as well as the New Testament, and he considers contemporary situations that may be covered by these commands. Here, for example, is some of what he says about the command to “not testify against your neighbor as a false witness”:

“The Old Testament affirms the importance of truth in public life, with particular condemnation of religious leaders who use their positions to propagate lies (Jer 6:13-14; 8:10-11; 23:21-32; Ezek 13) and pander to their audiences with smooth talk (cf. Is 30:9-11). Mendacity brings iniquity (Is 5:18) and causes confusion by pretending to be virtue (Is 5:20).

    Another kind of untruth that is pervasive today is the use of moral euphemisms designed to make what is wrong appear right or at least unobjectionable. Instead of committing adultery, people have an affair. Instead of having an abortion, they terminate a pregnancy. Instead of killing innocent citizens, there is collateral damage. Instead of unemployment, there is downsizing. Instead of lying, there are ‘terminological inexactitudes’ (Winston Churchill, 1906).

What about us? Are we habitually truthful. When we speak and write, it is often easier to say what we think people want to hear–or what we want them to hear–than what is actually true. Sometimes it is tempting to keep quiet and not say anything at all rather than speaking up when we ought to. The Bible encourages us to go beyond the rejection of false testimony, to become people who speak the truth from our hearts” (p. 141).

Baker concludes by asserting that these Ten Words are still a type of constitution for the people of God. He observes that the writers of the New Testament and Jesus himself extend our understanding of them from mere external observance to an obedience that captures our minds and hearts and works itself out in grace-filled love of God and neighbor. We don’t strive after observing the Ten Commandments to be saved but draw upon them for how we might live as the saved people of God.

David L. Baker presents all of us to us in a work that reflects his scholarly Old Testament work and yet with clarity for any adult audience. For those who want to go further, the book includes a forty page bibliography, both on general matters pertaining to the Decalogue, and works pertaining to each of the commands. This makes a great resource for anyone planning to teach or preach on this material, and for all of us as we seek to allow these “words” to search and guide our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown –Before Starbucks and Craft Beer Pubs

Open_Hearth_bar

The Open Hearth Bar on Steel Street, Photo by Tony Tomsic, Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library

Much is made these days of the idea of “third places” which are places between work and home that function as social gathering places. Starbucks and other coffee shops particularly serve that function for a certain kind of crowd. Free wi-fi, custom-made coffee and other hot and cold drinks, tables, couches, and an ambience that encourages conversation, or for those who are into it, work, and sometimes a bit of both. For the adult crowd, it seems that one of the trendy places where this happens is at craft beer pubs, perhaps with locally brewed beer, or exotic lists of craft brews from all over the world. It does seem that all this comes at a premium–expensive coffee, or beers that cost what a six pack would at the grocery.

I was thinking today of what would have been the equivalent growing up in working class Youngstown. My wife, ever the realist reminded me that for many people with families, there was only work and home, and you didn’t drop money at coffee shops or bars. A treat might be a dinner out together as a family at the Boulevard Tavern or other places like it.

I do think the neighborhood bar served this function to a certain degree. In some parts of town, they were places mill workers would stop at on the way home. Others had the neighborhood regulars, and others who would drop by less frequently. For the younger crowd, places like McDonalds might be a great place to catch a burger and a Coke after school and hang out with friends. In the summer, Handel’s certainly was this kind of place for people who gathered from all over town, and sat in (or on) their cars and enjoyed good ice cream.

For those of us who worked downtown (this was in the late 60’s, early 70’s) you might take a break at the Plaza Donuts in the Arcade, or pop over to the Ringside after work. For those of us who were students at Youngstown State, the Kilcawley Pub on campus was convenient–little did we know that Ed O’Neill would turn out to be famous! Nearby, there were places like the Golden Dawn or the Royal Oaks (which I hear is still quite good!).

I think the big difference between then and now was so many of these were locally owned (some of the new places are as well) and had their own unique flavor that reflected their clientele. They were also good value for the dollar. You didn’t have lots of fancy coffee drinks, you had coffee. No fancy craft beers–heck, I remember when Coors was a big deal!

Where did you go to meet up with friends before the days of Starbucks and brew pubs?

Is Evangelicalism Dying?

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Recently apologist Hank Hanegraff converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, joining the exodus of prominent evangelicals to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Ed Stetzer, in a column in Christianity Today, noted the attraction for many thoughtful evangelicals of the liturgy and sense of authority and unchanging belief when belief seems to be a “choose your own adventure” story for evangelicals and many Protestant churches are trimming their belief sails to the winds of culture.

A friend of mine, who has recently converted to Catholicism described the evangelical church as “fading away” and that it will probably not exist in 50 years. His judgment was that were this to occur, the movement won’t be missed. I’ve been thinking about his remark all week. You see, both in terms of the organization I work with, and the church where I worship, evangelicals are the “people” within the larger Christian family with which I am identified. And truth be told, I am unashamed of the core distinctives David Bebbington and others have said mark this movement within the larger Christian family: a focus on the work of Christ, the authority of the Bible in our lives, the need for conversion, and a commitment to live out our beliefs in action. I should also say at the outset that I both deeply respect and learn from believers from these other parts of the Christian family, as I hope they might from our part of the family as well.

If there is anything that is dying, it is white, boomer evangelicalism. The evangelical movement globally is rapidly growing, particularly the Pentecostal segments of it. In the U.S., ethnic minority churches are rapidly growing and they share the theological convictions, if not the ethno-cultural trappings of boomer evangelicals. There has been a great deal of commentary about white evangelicals since the presidential election. What I think it all really comes down to is that large swaths of the white evangelical church have exchanged gospel power for political clout and have associated themselves with partisan politics rather that the impartiality of the gospel. We’ve forgotten our own conversions and what it was like to be lost…and found, and we’ve become indifferent to others or even judgmental. The Bible is often simply the launching board to justify whatever we want for ourselves or want others to do. Crosses are just part of the “Jesus junk” we adorn ourselves with and we think little of this as the place where God’s love and justice meet. Activism is going to political rallies and posting yard signs.

I know this is sweeping and there are many exceptions. I had a chance to visit with some of them on Thursday. They are bright, talented graduate students. They were simply talking about the Christian community of which they are part. It is diverse in majors and the ethnic background of people and they love that and want it to be even more true. They love to read and think deeply about the Bible and not beat others over the head with it but rather do what it teaches. They love conversations with those who differ from them–that is the nature of grad school. They love Jesus and each other. They care about the poor in their midst. Several worship in a church in a rough area of town that is a “food desert” and they are dedicated to serving the people there. They encourage me to hope and pray for better evangelical days ahead. And their example makes me want to do all I can both to encourage them and call the evangelicals of my generation to repent and to recover.

  • To repent of our political captivity and to recover our prophetic calling.
  • To repent of our forgetfulness of our lostness and the wonder of being found by Christ and to recover our sensitivity to the least, the last and the lost.
  • To repent of our “solo scriptura” approach to the Bible where each of us are our own pope and we read into the Bible what we want. Will we test our reading against the creeds, the confessions, and how our brothers and sisters from other classes and cultures read the same text?
  • To repent of sin management and censoriousness of others and recover the sense that we are all equally in need of the work of Christ at a cross that brings down the privileged and raises the powerless.
  • To repent of our culture wars and to recover a sense of culture care that seeks to preserve and strengthen what is good, and to bring healing to what is broken.

I mentioned earlier how I learn so much from Eastern Orthodox and Catholic believers and the rich resources of this part of the family. At the same time, I would entertain the humble hope that there are riches within the evangelical part of the family line, and that it would indeed be a tragedy for this to die out. As sad as the break of the Reformation was, it led to reform in all parts of the church. The evangelicals who came from this fomented a missionary enterprise, that despite its imperfections, brought the light of Christ to many people, who in some cases are now re-evangelizing the West. Even as evangelicals have played a key role in the modern day fight against human trafficking, so also they led the fight against slavery. In the world of the university where I work, I’ve seen a generation of Christian researchers arise coupling academic rigor and Christian thought in fields as diverse as philosophy, education, and technology.

I do think there are things in evangelicalism as it has developed over the past 40 years that deserve to be laid to rest. But I would also suggest that to talk about a branch of the family dying is a regrettably sad, and even cruel thing. I wonder if a better conversation might be one where we seek to learn from the best of each part of the family. Will we heal the rifts of the Great Schism, or the Reformation? I doubt it. But we might begin to draw closer as we pray and wait for the Great Return when all wounds and rifts will be healed, and a single, pure and spotless Bride will greet her Lover. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

Review: On Tyranny

On Tyranny

On Tyranny, Timothy Snyder. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Summary: A Yale historian draws twenty lessons from fascist and communist movements of the twentieth century and applies them to the American context.

This has been an unexpected book for me in several ways. I selected it in one of the review programs I am a part of expecting to receive a standard size book that was a treatise on tyranny, particularly given the academic background of its author, a Yale historian. Instead, what I received was a “pocket book” sized paperback with twenty pithy lessons on tyranny summarized in titles of six words or less, with a short paragraph summary at the beginning of lessons, the longest of which was nine pages.

The other unexpected thing about this book is that it is currently selling like crazy. At one point it was a number one bestseller in the Washington Post listings, and is currently at number three in the latest New York Times paperback non-fiction category. It is plain that this book has appealed to the apprehensions of many.

The author’s research is on Nazism, fascism, and communism, particularly around the Holocaust. What he has done here is distill all that down into a slim book that can be read in an evening, but will leave one thinking, “can it happen here?” It is clear that the author thinks it can and he is writing so that Americans will not be taken by surprise. The epigraph quotes Polish philosopher Leszak Kolakowski who said, “In politics, being deceived is no excuse.” Snyder’s short lessons are designed both to help readers discern the signs of incipient tyranny, and to know how to act in its face.

The first lesson is a case in point: “do not obey in advance.” He uses the phrase “anticipatory obedience” to describe the kind of voluntary compliance with tyranny that Hitler and other tyrants enjoyed. In the second lesson, he argues something I’ve discussed in different posts, that we ought defend the institutions from courts to a free press to local government that are bulwarks against overweening power. Just because we have them, we can’t assume they will survive. Later on, he extends this to voluntary and recurring contributions to organizations whose work reflects our worldview.

Another of his lessons also touches on a theme I’ve written on: “be kind to our language.” He notes all the tactics of tyrants from the Big Lie to the attribution of insidious motives to all opposition. He warns against falling into the banalities and emptiness of a language shorn of its resistant edge. He writes,

“Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”

He is quite serious about limiting presence on the internet. As is clear from recent laws removing privacy protections, as he puts it, “email is skywriting.” Between the information we yield to commercial interests, the selves we reveal on social media, and other ways we expose ourselves, we provide in his words “hooks on which to hang” ourselves.

His call is not, like some, a call to withdrawal, but in the vein of Edmund Burke, who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” he argues that we, like Rosa Parks should stand out (or sit down in her case) in the face of tyranny. His last lesson is summed up in two sentences. “Be courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.”

The author leaves no question that his concern is the current president of the United States. While some, no doubt, will admire the fact that the author pulls no punches; others will see this as simply one more broadside against the president who they think is a bulwark against tyranny, and reject its message wholesale. The work would have had far more credibility if it named examples of recent acts on both the political left and right that are incipient acts of tyranny. One could equally point to the erosion of religious freedom protections. Then there are the ways Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure have been diminished (under both Republican and Democratic administrations). While I would agree that the current president’s actions (particularly the politics of “alternate truth”) have been especially egregious at times and are concerning, they represent what I believe is a new stage in an ongoing erosion of the democratic and civic virtues that have served as protections of our liberties.

You can probably tell that I do not think this book excessively dark or unwarranted.  I think tyranny can happen here. Pre-Nazi Germany was a center of culture, of innovation, and some of the greatest universities in the world (by the way, I also think the author is blind, or at least doesn’t mention, the tyranny of the intelligentsia, both then and now). The lessons Snyder draws are warranted and all who care about our liberties do well to heed them.

What I wish Snyder might have seen and acknowledged was that the fear of tyranny on both left and right motivated the decisions and voting behavior of many. I find myself wondering if that might open up a better conversation about how we preserve and safeguard liberty for all — rich and poor, religious and secularist, LGBT and straight, creative class and working class, majority and minority culture. Too long we have pursued a politics in which the pursuit of liberty is treated as a zero sum game, where liberty gained by some must come at a loss for others. That, too, is a form of tyranny, where the liberties of some of our citizens are dispensable. It was just such habits of thought that allowed Hitler to arouse ire against the Jews, and those with various disabilities. Perhaps Snyder might add a twenty-first lesson: the attack upon the liberty of any of us is an attack upon the liberty of all of us and must be resisted.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming Hope

Reclaiming HopeMichael Wear. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017.

Summary: Written by an Obama staffer in his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and faith outreach director in his 2012 campaign, this is not only a narrative of that work, but also an exploration of controversial decisions made by this administration, and how Christians might think of the possibilities and practice of political involvement.

Michael Wear got involved in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign after following his rise in politics following the 2004 Democratic convention speech that brought Obama to national attention. After the election, he was appointed as a staff member in the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Joshua DuBois. He worked in this office, contributing to efforts to provide tax breaks for adoptions and commitment of the administration to actively fighting human trafficking. He completed his service in the Obama administration heading up the 2012 faith outreach efforts during the presidential campaign. This book discusses that work, which ended with the second inauguration, after which he launched a consulting firm.

It begins with the idealism that surrounded the election of Obama, and the early hopes of an inclusive politics. He highlights Obama’s defense of the inclusion of Rick Warren against people who opposed him for his support of California’s Proposition Eight. An administration that started with a concern to include differing views at the table changed as the Affordable Care Act legislation worked its way through Congress. Concerns about abortion, and the unbending resistance on the contraceptive mandate aroused a sense that the administration was engaged in a war on religion.

Likewise, Wear wrestles with seemingly sincere statements about religious faith and support of traditional marriage by candidate Obama, only for him to “evolve” to a different position, eventually supporting gay marriage, with evidence that this had been the end goal all along. It causes him to wrestle with some of his own work, including speech-writing research that drew on his knowledge of religious audiences.

In reading this, one has a sense of missed opportunities, by both the Obama administration and the political opposition, that led to a hardening of attitudes and deepening of divides. Yet for all this, Wear is neither bitter nor disillusioned. His last two chapters concern the theme of hope. The first of these concerns the error of placing hope in politics. Here he recounts a fascinating interchange between writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Washington pastor Thabiti Anyabwile over this subject. In the final chapter he talks about the important role Christians, who do not put their ultimate hope in politics, can play in reclaiming hope for engagement in the process–hope that is committed, seeks justice, and is humble. He contends there is important work to be done and for Christians to come together around in both racial justice issues and religious freedom.

This last was particularly striking. It seems like these often are treated in a mutually exclusive fashion–you can only be for one or the other. Yet we are in fact in a country where there are both deep racial inequities, and where religious freedom faces real threats. Rather than accepting partisan binaries, why not stand together in a both-and fashion on this and other issues? Similarly, he contends that since marriage has been extended to same sex partners, why not strengthen the incentives for others to marry as well and revisit the ease with which we grant divorce?

Against a temptation in the current toxic climate to withdraw, he writes:

    “In the face of hopelessness, Christians cannot withdraw from their neighbors, under the impression that they are unwanted and so grant what they think the world wants. We do not love our neighbor for affirmation, but because we have been loved first. Now is not the time to withdraw, but to refine our intentions and pursue public faithfulness that truly is good news.”

Wear has given us a thoughtful book about political engagement, one where we see his own growth, and yet one that does not end, like so many, in disillusion or bitterness. He models the deep resources Christian faith brings to sustain a resilience when one faces deep disappointment, opposition, or simply the realization that the road is a long one. While written out of the context of a Democratic administration, it is not a partisan version of faith in politics, but one that any thoughtful Christian, no matter their party affiliation, may read with profit.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Brief History of The English Reformation

The English Reformation

A Brief History of The English ReformationDerek Wilson. London: Robinson, 2012.

Summary: A history of the house of Tudor, and how their rule transformed England both religiously and politically, and the influence of the vernacular scriptures on the English people.

For English speaking peoples, to understand our religious history, we cannot help but understand the English Reformation. Much of American religious history is either influenced by, or a reaction to this century or so of Tudor rule in England.

Derek Wilson traces the finer details of a story whose basic outlines may be familiar. Henry VIII seems the unlikely reformer. Early on, he is even bestowed the title, “Defender of the Faith” for his arguments against the continental European reformers. He fills in the narrative of Henry’s frustrated dynastic ambitions, jeopardized by the failure to produce a male heir, that leads to the fateful step of separation from Rome when the web of papal politics leads to a failure to obtain an annulment, and his subsequent proclamation of sovereignty over the church in England. He seizes and dissolves monasteries, bankrolling his wars, executes Anne Boleyn, his second wife, and finally secures a male heir from Jane, the third wife, who dies as a result of childbirth.

Wilson narrates the rise and fall of powerful religious figures–Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell. Thomas Cranmer is the figure charged with forming a church, purging it of Catholic elements, resisting the more radical elements, and establishing the via media that characterizes the Church of England to this day.

Wilson covers the Catholic backlash–from dynastic houses on the continent, and within the country. When Edward VI dies young and heirless, Mary, born of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife, becomes a Catholic queen and initiates the purge that gains her the title of “Bloody Mary.” Wilson provides graphic descriptions of burnings at the stake, a truly gruesome means of execution that also left us with Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and tales of Cranmer running to the stake.

Relative peace comes only with the accession of Elizabeth I, a shrewd woman who did all she could to avoid antagonizing enemies while returning to its place the church Henry began. This was not without uprisings and more executions, particularly as Catholics make England the object of missionary enterprise, but Elizabeth more readily sought compromise rather than revenge, and the nation, perhaps weary from religious upheaval, accepted the peace she brought.

With reform came the vernacular Bible in various English versions with glosses of Lutherans, Genevans, and eventually English Bishops. For Wilson, this seems one of the most significant events, not necessarily intended by the leaders among the Reformers. In place of ritual came the preaching of the Bible, and a growth of biblical literacy to the place where Shakespeare’s biblical allusions made sense to his public. In concluding the book, Wilson writes:

“One change above all had not only shaped England but ensured that it could never revert to an authoritarian polity dominated by kings and priests. This monumental transformation of the national psyche was brought about by a book. The English Bible potentially enabled every man and woman to find faith for him/herself. And as they discovered truths within its pages, so they would apply those truths to every aspect of social, political and economic life. The Reformation did not invent individualism, but it did provide individualism with a textual basis. The Reformation did not inaugurate an age of faith. What it did establish was a national Christianity that could define its own doctrines, invent its own liturgy and negotiate its own public morality without dependence on a foreign spiritual superpower. Since church and state were inextricably entwined, this freedom found expression in the government’s internal and external relations. England assumed a leadership role in Protestant Europe. In the fullness of time, thanks to its commercial and colonial expansion, it would take its culture and its reformed heritage to the ends of the earth.”

Out of all of this came the Protestant movements that colonized America. English Bibles  trace their lineage back through King James to versions by Coverdale and Tyndale. The sometimes tendentious relationship between church and state finds its roots both in the reaction to state control and yet the idea that somehow the teaching of holy scripture should “apply…to every aspect of social, political, and economic life.” We may trace all this and more back to the English Reformation, making works like this important if we are to understand our own religious and national roots.